The Face


When the Question is the Answer

And the living shall take to heart

Who is as the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the intensity of his face is changed –

Ecclesiastes 8:1

Ah, a face.

The human face is one of the great mysteries. What makes a face a face? Is it the look, the features, the eyes, all the above, none of the above, or both and perhaps something more.

A face can tell it all, or it can hide it all. Is there anything as comforting as a kind face, reassuring as a warm smile and electrifying as sparkling eyes?

And is there anything more disturbing than a scowl, unsettling than a dirty stare, dismissive than a frown and alarming than a frightened face?

Then there is the sheepish look, the proud look, the bright face and the ashen one. The blush and the flinch, the pride and the shame, the joy and the pain. The entire spectrum of life experience, the tangible and not so tangible, is captured in our facial expressions.

When we want to see another’s reaction the first place we look is usually at the face. The reason is perhaps because as newborns our first sights are the faces of our mothers and fathers.

A face tells a story. A face is a story. Many stories – many volumes. A face is a study in the mysteries of human nature. It reveals and it conceals all at once.

Can we ever know the depth of feelings that lie behind a smile or a grimace?

The Hebrew word for face can perhaps shed some light on the mystery. “Panim” means both “face” and “inside” in Hebrew. Strange. A face seems to express the external surface, as in “the face of the matter.” Indeed, one can put on a false face that does not reflect what lies within. One can smile while feeling miserable inside.

Yet, the Hebrew language – a language of the soul – defines the true nature of a face: Even as we may use it to conceal, it reflects the inside of a person. Those sensitive to the “panim” within a person can read the face’s inside story.

Mystically speaking, each of us was created in the “Divine Image.” What does that mean? Isn’t “Divine Image” an oxymoron? If it’s Divine then it should not have the capacity to be contained in a mere image. As G-d tells Moses: “no man can see me and live.” The second commandment explicitly prohibits the carving of a “graven image” of the Divine.  In creating man did G-d transgress His own commandment?

The mystic’s answer is this. In creating man, G-d manifested His inner “personality” in an outer image called the human being. While the essence of G-d remains beyond any manifestation, a dimension of Divine energy takes on the shape of a “supernal man” (“odom ha’elyon”) in whose “image” and “figure” each of us is created. As Ezekiel begins his prophetic vision: “upon the figure of the throne a figure in the shape of a human.”

Prior (conceptually, not in time) to existence, there was no “inside” and “outside.” Everything was within the all encompassing and all-pervasive Divine energy. What is today “outside” was then “inside.” The Great Tzimtzum turned the inside out and the outside in, creating a duality in which we have “outside” experiences that can seem divorced of their “inside” souls.

But with the creation of man, G-d revealed His inside in an outward manifestation. In effect, the human being is a walking revelation of the Divine.

Free will is our right to choose to reveal the inner Divine or to allow the outer packaging to dominate.


The Midrash in this week’s Torah portion discusses the face in some of its extreme contortions.

Moses challenges G-d, the Midrash relates, with the biggest question of all. “How can one be purified from the impurity of death?”

G-d did not respond.

“At that moment, Moses’ face turned yellow (pale).”

Only later, continues the Midrash, in the section that discusses the red heifer [this week’s Torah portion], did G-d say to Moses: “When I communicated to you the laws of ritual impurity, you asked Me, ‘How can this person (touched by death) become pure?’ I did not respond. Now I will give you the answer.” And G-d proceeded to convey the mitzvah of purification from the impurity of death by mixing the ashes of a red heifer with fresh water and sprinkling it upon the contaminated human being.

What kind of answer is this? And if it’s an adequate answer, why was G-d initially silent? Why wasn’t the answer given immediately?

This passage in Midrash is actually an interpretation of the verse in Ecclesiastes, “Who is as the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the intensity of his face is changed.”

In this verse King Solomon is describing the mystery of life and death, and the way humans deal with it. We can all feel wise when things are “going well.” The world in which we live is so structured that the surface obscures all that is going on within.  On the surface level, we may feel that we are in control and know the “interpretation of a thing” — or two.

Until… until something shakes our comfort zone and wakes us from our reverie. Then, suddenly, we realize that the deepest truth of all is the query: “Who [really] is as the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing?”

This does not negate the wisdom that we may have.  “A man’s wisdom makes his face shine.” Yet, experiencing the pain of death – the disconnection of a soul departing its body and leaving its family and friends to travel to another domain – teaches an even deeper wisdom, as “the intensity of his face is changed.”

Moses, the quintessential man of G-d, the collective soul that contains within itself the experience of all souls, personally undergoes this transformation.

Moses was wise. And his face showed it. He had to cover his face because the people could not look at its radiance.

But then Moses became even wiser. He learned that the greatest wisdom of all is silence. That quiet place was revealed to him only when he asked the question – the greatest question of all: What do we do with death?

We live our entire lives believing that our actions have meaning; that the prices we pay to live virtuously, and the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents, are all worthwhile because every good deed, every effort, lives on forever.

Death, however, challenges the entire premise of our significance. Death seems to declare that no one is indispensable. The very word “death” means “the end,” finality.  We think the party will never end – boom! It ends whether we like it or not.

Moses was a great man, the greatest of them all. His greatness shined most – as all greatness does – not in “good times,” but in the bad. In the abysmal throes of Egypt, after the tragedy of the Golden Calf, in the darkest moments, Moses did not slink away helplessly. He looked the blackness in its face and did whatever it took.

Now, Moses confronts the issue if death. He is not afraid to face it, but he is also wise enough to know that he needed different tools (or no tools) to address the “dark side” of life. Moses does not confront death intellectually, academically; he takes it to heart personally and cries out: “What can possibly purify the impurity of death?!” How can one ever heal from it. How can it not shake the very core of our beliefs?

The first step in dealing with it is bravely asking the question and feeling the pain. Moses’ face changed color. [Another place in the Midrash simply states that “Moses’ face changed”].

The face. “The intensity of his face is changed.” The same face that glowed after Moses descended with the Tablets, now changes as he looks death in the eye.

Then, G-d taught Moses the true answer: Silence. Nothing but silence can contain the intensity of the schism between life and death.  We are returned to the silence of the Tzimtzum itself. Before the tzimtzum, reality was “buzzing” with infinite light (ein sof) and all its delights. Suddenly, a silence descended: G-d withdrew the conscious awareness of Divine energy, to allow for our independence to emerge.

Imagine the most brilliant master unceasingly expounding on the infinite reservoirs of all wisdom and knowledge, then suddenly falling silent.

The stillness must be so deafening – louder than any sound. The energy expended in withholding the flow is infinitely more powerful than the energy required to release the flow.

This silence replays itself in every death. And replayed itself before Moses when G-d did not respond to his question about acquiring purity from death. The non-response was the greatest response of all.

Later, G-d continues, saying: Now that we have been silent together. . . after we have stood in awe of the mystery, now we can talk. And they talk.

G-d shares with Moses the mystery of cycles. All cycles. The cycles of life and death; the cycles of life itself and even the cycles of death and beyond. Everything in existence – even silence and tzimtzum – is part of a cycle.

The secret of the cycle is that it is one continuum of energy. Every form of energy requires movement. Energy cannot be generated in a vacuum; it needs two opposite poles that cause tension and then resolution. Opposites attract.

Take, for example, the life force energy within our bodies. Our heartbeat is the result of two movements: Contraction and expansion.  Our breath involves inhaling and exhaling. Tension and then resolution, only to lead to a new cycle, and yet another.

This mystery is captured in the balance of mixing water and ashes (fire) — the mitzvah of the red heifer. Fire is the tension and water the resolution. Together they are the source of life itself.

We are alive when we have a healthy balance of angst and resolve. Yearning, reaching for something greater. Then integrating it. Too much tension (as in anxiety or worse) or too much resolution (as in animal bliss or worse!) results in hyperactivity or stagnation.

Yet, when all is said and done, the silence still remains. And it continues to permeate the conversation.  Moses makes this abundantly clear in the continuing dialogue. After hearing G-d’s words about the red heifer and the water and ashes, Moses remains stunned: “Is this the way to achieve purity?”  G-d replies: “This is the supra-rational law; it is my decree and there is no existing creature who can comprehend this decree.”

Discussions help us forge ahead, but they don’t turn us into G-d. They don’t – they can’t – allow us to intellectually enter into the “heart of darkness,” into the essential core of the tzimtzum. These places, by Divine decree, remain impenetrable with the use of conventional (or any) tools.

Quiet. Awe. Stillness. These are gifts.

The Midrash doesn’t tell us directly whether Moses’ face changed back to its originl color, with its glowing radiance. But we can assume that it did (as one commentary states). But I would like to believe that even when it did, it never was the same.

Because, yes, the greatest answer of all is the question itself.


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David Harold Chester
11 days ago

In the 3-fold prayers that a Cohen uses to bless the community, he includes the idea of G-d’s face shining upon us. This is of course an expression for Him granting benevolence to us all. So the concept of a friendly face reaches even to heaven.

One point I wish to make is that men have beards which cover half of their faces, so that we can only get part of the expressions of emotion from them, where as women do not have this problem. Is this a good pointer towards the essential contribution that women can make to our well-being?

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